Monday, March 2, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.04: Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things


The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Direwolf Catelyn Stark
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen, Viserys Targaryen
Bears of Vaes Dothrak: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbird’s of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Robb Stark, Bran Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
And the Lion of Winterfell, Tyrion Lannister

The episode is in twelve parts. The first runs five minutes and is set in Winterfell; the first shot is of a raven flying through the castle as Bran stands drawing a bow. 

The second runs three minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is deceptive continuity, with a cut from Theon watching Tyrion ride away to an overhead shot of a man on horseback who turns out not to be Tyrion. 

The third runs seven minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen.

The fourth runs seven minutes long and is in two sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Viserys talking about the Red Keep to Sansa and Septa Mordane walking into it. The other is five minutes long; the transition is by family and dialogue, from Sansa talking about her father to Ned. 

The fifth part runs two minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Arya and Ned Stark to Jon Snow.

The sixth runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Ned Stark. The transition marks the halfway point of the episode. 

The seventh runs three minutes and is set on the Wall; he transition is by hard cut, from Jory walking away from Jaime to people dining in the mess at Castle Black. 

The eighth runs one minute and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by dialogue, from Thorne talking about sniveling boys to Viserys, and by family, from Jon Snow to Viserys and Daenerys. 

The ninth runs six minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys saying “hands” to a shot of Sam’s hand scrubbing a table.

The tenth runs one minute and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen.

The eleventh runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys talking about her brother possibly taking back the Seven Kingdoms to a shot of Robert. The scene features the death of Ser Hugh of the Vale, killed by Gregor Clegane in the joust. 

The last runs three minutes and is set in an inn on the Kingsroad in the Riverlands; the transition is by family, from Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister to Catelyn and Tyrion. The final shot is several of Edmure Tully’s bannermen drawing swords on Tyrion as Catelyn vows to take him to Mornington Crescent. 

The episode is framed by Tyrion Lannister, providing a bit of structure to an episode that is largely about reiterating and expanding upon the new concepts introduced in “Lord Snow.” The most obvious expansion comes in the introduction of Samwell Tarly on the Wall, who, although not initially credited as a series regular, goes on to become one, and, in A Storm of Swords, a viewpoint character to boot. This constitutes a major reconfiguration of the Wall, giving Jon Snow a clear “best friend” figure of the sort whose absence formed the entire basis of his plot in the previous episode. The resulting story is straightforward, at least for this episode, but brings the Wall to a usable status quo after four episodes of gradual development. 

Structurally, the Wall is paralleled with Vaes Dothrak, with every scene set in the latter location either leading into or out of the former. There the plot is largely in a holding pattern, with the single largest portion of the three Vaes Dothrak scenes being devoted to a Viserys scene that was created specifically for the show. As with many sequences added for the show, its content is largely an exposition dump, in this case a lengthy discourse on the history of dragons and of the Targaryens, but its real content, as with the entire Vaes Dothrak plot this episode, is to finally move to overt text what has been bubbling in subtext for three episodes, which is that Viserys is manifestly unfit to lead anything and will never take back the Iron Throne, a point that finally gets explicitly acknowledged by Daenerys in the last of the three Vaes Dothrak sequences. And, in turn, it foreshadows future plot twists, subtly highlighting the fact that Viserys, unlike his sister, is vulnerable to heat and fire. 

The episode is anchored, however, by King’s Landing, which makes up three of its four longest parts, comprising a total of twenty-three minutes of the episode. As with the Wall, the bulk of this is in practice about fleshing out the location, with Grandmaster Pycelle getting a more thorough introduction, Janos Slynt getting introduced in the first place, the Hound getting some backstory, and a scene between Jory and Jaime that reiterates some earlier exposition about the Greyjoy Rebellion, develops the relationship between Jaime and Robert, and, most significantly, gives Jory and Jaime a scene together prior to the next episode’s climax. 

There are no major shifts to the status quo here - indeed, Ned Stark’s investigation basically just politely spins its wheels with little more than an innuendo-laden confrontation with Cersei to show for it. There are clues and implications aplenty, most obviously around Ser Hugh of the Vale, but given that this is a mystery the audience has been told the solution to, the bulk of these scenes come off as marking time, not least because that’s mostly what they’re doing. Even for a book-reading audience who knows both who actually killed Jon Arryn and who hired the assassin to kill Bran there’s not much that’s actually happening here. There are perhaps a few subtle valences of Littlefinger’s actions that shift if you know the full story, but given that his larger schemes mostly amount to spreading chaos and discord, knowing merely that he’s untrustworthy, a point the show and, more particularly, Aiden Gillen make acutely clear, there’s not actually a lot that shifts. Similarly, Joffrey is so thoroughly portrayed as a malevolent figure that the addition of one trifling extra crime (one that’s never actually pinned on him in the show anyway) hardly changes things.

The reason for this, of course, is that in reality this isn’t a show about Ned’s investigation at all, and that the account of what sort of show this was given back in “Winter is Coming” was as much a lie as the account of Jon Arryn’s murderer was. It is just that this aspect of the status quo cannot be disrupted until the rest of the board is developed. Once all four locations have been painted in sufficient detail that the question of what sort of show this is no longer rests entirely on the shoulders of Ned Stark it becomes possible to disrupt and alter the initial status quo, but it is not until this episode that these aspects of the show are developed enough to allow for a shift in the first ground established. 

Which brings us, inevitably, back to Tyrion, from whom the episode’s title derives, despite only being in two scenes comprising, between them, barely the time of a single King’s Landing scene. In the books, Tyrion poses an interesting textual problem. Barring a potential revelation about his parentage that is, while certainly a plausible theory, nevertheless far from certain, he is the only viewpoint character of the first book who sits outside of the ice/fire dualism that underpins the world. As already discussed, his eventual role is instead to traverse that dualism - he eventually becomes the first character to meet both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, and to move from the Wall to Essos. Closely related to this, then, is the fact that he is the character most capable of causing major changes to the status quo, and indeed, it is from him that the first major shift stems.

Interestingly, though, this is not, at first, presented in terms of his own abilities. The first major change he brings to the status quo is not one in which he has any agency. Instead, it comes when he is taken captive by Catelyn at the episode’s end. The Aristotelean web of causality that forms the plot of the first season is a tightly knit one, but there are few events in it that serve as bigger turning points than this, which proves to be the spark that ignites the conflict that will eventually become the War of Five Kings. It is, it has to be said, a staggeringly bad move on Catelyn’s part. She gains no advantages whatsoever from it, and the cost turns out to be nothing short of catastrophic for the entire Realm. Nevertheless, it marks the first actual shift in the balance of power within the game since play commenced, and sets up dramatic consequences for the next episode. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Waffling (February 28th, 2015)

Hey, so, first off, check out Ian McDuffie's Patreon for his webcomic FEELS. And, for that matter, his webcomic FEELS. Really nice, sweetly funny and dryly sad comics about people having emotions about one another.

In other news, barring an absolutely massive swath of votes in the final twenty-four hours, the next bonus post as voted on by Patreon backers will be on Russell T Davies's produce triptych Cucumber/Banana/Tofu. That'll be in just about two weeks, once the whole thing airs.

But man, if you're not watching it, check it out. It's really, really good. Episode 6 of Cucumber is titanically, breathtakingly good, although for the most part I think Banana has really been the best show.

So, given how good episode six of Cucumber was, let's have an open thread on it. I'll talk about it in detail in two weeks time, but for now I'll just say... holy shit that was amazing.

Also, if you missed it, the commentary track Jack Graham and I did for the second episode of The Rescue went up on Wednesday. These have gotten super low download numbers according to my stats tracker. Like, apparently only eleven people downloaded episode two, down from sixty-eight on episode one. Will at least do The Mind Robber, though will probably take a week off before that, and maybe a new series track to see if that does a bit better, but I'm officially flagging that project as in serious danger of cancellation. In case my stats tracking is wrong, though, if you downloaded episode two, please say so in comments.

Finally, there'll be a post on Tuesday this week. The title will be Recursive Book Launch.

Currently working on: A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.09: Baelor

Friday, February 27, 2015

Devoted to Joy (The Last War in Albion Part 85: Garry Leach's Marvelman)

This is the thirteenth of fifteen parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Nine, focusing on Alan Moore's work on V for Vendetta for Warrior (in effect, Books One and Two of the DC Comics collection). An omnibus of all fifteen parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in a collected edition, along with the eventual completion of the story. UK-based readers can buy it here.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Following the cessation of Captain Marvel stories on the part of Fawcett Comics, L. Miller & Son, a British company that had been publishing reprints of Fawcett's material, created a transparent knockoff of Captain Marvel called Marvelman. In 1981, Moore pitched a revival of the character for Warrior, with the idea that Mickey Moran, Marvelman's human alter-ego, had forgotten his magic word, and indeed that he was Marvelman, until one day he was taken hostage by terrorists.

"He was mad. He devoured Nietzsche's writings, enamored of the idea of the superman being devoted to joy, and bringing joy by dint of his existence." -Warren Ellis, Stormwatch

Figure 649: The iconic panel of Marvelman's
return as reworked by Alan Davies. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Alan Davies after Garry
Leach, from "The Yesterday Gambit" in Warrior
#4, 1982)
Moran, held hostage, sees the word “ATOMIC” reflected in a door, and reads it backwards, out loud, suddenly transforming into Marvelman. The terrorist next to him simply drops dead, burnt to death in the force of Marvelman’s transformation. Seven feet tall and blue, he trivially cleans up the terrorists and flies away, joyful at being a superhero again. Moore then goes on to outline some future plots, starting with one in which Kid Marvelman turns out also to have survived, but in his superhero form, which he remained in, growing rich and powerful with his secret abilities and becoming, in Moore’s words, “a nasty amoral son-of-a-bitch.” He also suggests an arc in which Gargunza’s employers take an interest in the newly returned Marvelman after he visits the grave of Dicky Dawson, Young Marvelman, followed by one in which Marvelman confronts Gargunza himself. “This should take us well into the stage where we’re selling the film rights and printing up the T-Shirts and similar,” Moore quips, although this would more or less have been true save for a series of creative conflicts and poor investments. “I’ll worry about what comes next when I get that far.” Moore then suggests Dave Gibbons or Steve Dillon as artists - both had in fact already been sounded out but were uninterested - and notes that he could rework the idea with a Marvelman pastiche, perhaps called Miracle Man, if the rights prove unavailable. This pitch sufficiently impressed Skinn that he asked Moore to write a first installment on spec that, if Skinn liked it, would land him the job.

(The last point raised in Moore’s pitch raises a significant issue in turn: the character of Marvelman was created by another company, and Skinn had to make sure he did not infringe upon their copyrights. This fact would end up causing a series of problems for over thirty years until Marvel Comics finally solved them all by rounding up everybody who might have had rights to the character and paying them off over the course of 2009-13. The result of this decision - entirely necessary given the eventual mess into which the legal situation had by that point degenerated - means that the actual legal situation has become a sort of superposition of competing claims, none of which had or ever will have their day in court, having been rendered irrelevant in the face of Marvel’s expenditures, and all of which are now essentially irrelevant, no matter how much ink was spilled over them back in the day.

Figure 650: Marvelman art with added copyright
notice from the 1977 anthology Nostalgia: Spotlight
on the Fifties
.
Regardless, it appears that what happened was as follows. At the start, there were only two plausible entities who might have held the copyright to Marvelman: L. Miller & Sons and Mick Anglo. The former had gone out of business in 1974, without taking any action with the rights. This left Mick Anglo. Skinn, for his part, concluded that Anglo had no rights to the character, and that it was thus in the public domain. This is not entirely straightforward, as Anglo had, in 1977, reprinted a page of Young Marvelman art in an anthology called Nostalgia: Spotlight on the Fifties and added a copyright notice. Certainly Anglo is, in the wake of Marvel’s resolution of the matter, the “official” person who held the rights prior to Marvel, with Marvel’s deal to acquire the character having been made with Anglo, followed by them settling with all of the creators involved in the property over the course of the 1980s and 90s to republish their specific stories. But this is, notably, merely the way in which Marvel presented a process that really amounted to paying everybody who might plausibly sue over the rights enough money to promise that they wouldn’t. But regardless of what the eventual 2009 resolution of the rights saga was, in 1981 Skinn concluded that Anglo’s work had been a work-for-hire. All the same, he contacted Anglo to ask for his permission, which Anglo appears to have given without any expectation of payment, although Skinn did pay Anglo for reprinting some of Anglo’s stories in the 1984 Marvelman Special

Figure 651: The numerous debates over the legal
status of Marvelman were finally put to an end
when Marvel began reprinting Moore's material in 2014.
This also, however, raises the question of Moore’s own intellectual property rights. The entire concept of Warrior was that, unlike their work for companies like IPC or Marvel UK, Moore and the other contributors would retain creative ownership. This also applied to Marvelman, although, as a previously created character, it was somewhat more complex than with V for Vendetta. The understanding that everyone had at the time was that the rights were split between Moore, Leach, and Quality Publications, which is to say, Skinn. Over the next decade, these supposed rights would be traded around among the writers and artists as they came and went, a process that would eventually become a key component of a legal dispute between Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane, before, like everything else, being superseded by Marvel’s “pay everyone” plan. Nevertheless, the question of exactly how Skinn obtained these rights was not entirely settled. Moore’s recollection is that Skinn told him he’d purchased the rights from the Official Receiver, who owned them following L. Miller & Son’s 1963 bankruptcy. This is, it should be noted, precisely the sort of detail Moore is not always great about recalling. If that was Skinn’s explanation to Moore, it was clearly a fabrication, not least because L. Miller & Son did not go bankrupt in 1963 or, indeed, at all. And Moore has not been subtle in suggesting malfeasance on Skinn’s part, bluntly saying that “my opinion - for what that is worth - is that there was knowing deceit involved in the Marvelman decision.” But for all of this, it is worth stressing a key fact about Skinn’s conduct, namely that he, through all of this, never would have thought about what he was doing in terms of creating a watertight legal case for the purposes of resolving a thirty-year-long intellectual property dispute. From his perspective, once Mick Anglo gave his blessing to the project - and it’s clear that he did - the rights were settled, and as long as, at any given point, everyone who might sue was satisfied and not going to do so, that was more than sufficient for the purposes of publishing Warrior, although it would turn out that he had not adequately considered one other company with a potential legal claim in a character called Marvelman.)

Figure 652: Kid Marvelman revealed. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Garry
Leach, from "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," in Warrior #3, 1982)
Moore’s script was a fairly direct adaptation of what he suggested in his pitch, to the extent of containing sections of the pitch as caption boxes, and was sufficient to get him the job. The artist chosen for the project was Garry Leach, who had been recommended by David Lloyd, and who had previously worked with Moore on “They Sweep the Spaceways,” one of his Future Shocks for IPC. Leach drew the first three installments of the strip, covering Moore’s initial script, an issue focusing on Marvelman coming back to explain what’s going on to his/Moran’s wife, giving Moore an opportunity to recap Marvelman’s canonical origin story and how a superhero came to be a middle aged journalist, (Liz Moran laughs at the absurdity of the story, upsetting Marvelman, who protests, “This may, damn it… this does sound silly in 1982, but in the fifties it made perfect sense”) and a third introducing Kid Marvelman/Johnny Bates, and ending with the revelation that Kid Marvelman has gone bad in a series of caption boxes as he unveils himself: “the cold lightning of fear skewers them, and they feel the terrible hunger in the heart of the storm… they see the smile on the face of the tiger.”

Figure 653: The cover of the Warrior Summer
Special, which ended up also being the fourth
issue, to considerable confusion.
The next installment of Marvelman marked the point where things started to go wrong for Warrior and, indeed, for the strip. Skinn’s original plan was to do a Summer Special of Warrior, which would include a Marvelman strip called “The Yesterday Gambit” in which Moore flashed forward in his plot line. This consisted of three sections: a frame story drawn by Steve Dillon and featuring Marvelman exploring an underwater structure built by aliens and called Silence with a mysterious figure called Warpsmith, and a pair of sections in which Marvelman fights past versions of himself, one from during the adventure where Gargunza attempted to kill him, and one set between the first and second issues of Warrior, the former drawn by Paul Neary, the latter by Alan Davis. After drawing power from his encounters with his past selves, Marvelman and Warpsmith are attacked by Kid Marvelman, leading into a cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, Warrior was running into financial troubles from the start. Sales on the first issue had only been 40,000 or so, which was far lower than Skinn had hoped for. On top of that Leach was proving to be a slow artist, and deadlines on Marvelman were imperiled from the start. The result of all of these problems was that the Summer Special and the fourth issue of Warrior were hastily merged together into one, resulting in confusing numbering and further harming sales. This began the long and slow decent into failure for Warrior as payments grew increasingly late and increasingly small, resulting in various creators abandoning Warrior for more lucrative and reliable work. 

Figure 654: Kid Marvelman brutally murders Stephanie. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Garry Leach, from "Dragons" in Warrior #5, 1982)
The first to do so was Leach, who was finding the amount of time that Marvelman was taking and the pay Warrior was offering an unsatisfying combination. He stayed onboard as part of the magazine’s design team but after one more installment in Warrior #5, resolving the Kid Marvelman story handed off art duties to Alan Davis, inking Davis’s first two strips to smooth the transition. These three installments concluded the Kid Marvelman story, with the character ending up far more disturbing than the merely “amoral son-of-a-bitch” and becoming an actively homicidal sociopath who casually kills his secretary and assistant, which Leach gruesomely depicts a startlingly disturbing caption box of Moore’s reading “Her name is Stephanie. She likes Adam and the Ants. Her boyfriend’s name is Brian. She collects wedgewood. Her insides have turned to water. She is only human.” Kid Marvelman also proves far more powerful than Marvelman, having had years to master his powers, and over the course of Leach’s last strip and Davis’s first pummels Marvelman nearly to death, the fight prompting a series of phonecalls depicted in small inset panels responding to “a signal that has been anticipated for nearly eighteen years” and resulting in a character named Sir Dennis Archer exclaiming, “Oh God. They’re back. The monsters are back.” But in the course of his brutal beating of Marvelman, Kid Marvelman makes a crucial mistake, gloating, “I beat him!! He thought he was bloody great and I beat him to a whimpering pulp!! And now I’m going to finish him off! Me! His adoring junior protege! Me. Kid Marvelman.” 

As this happens, Moore narrates: “Kid Marvelman. Johnny Bates. He was human once. But he’s forgotten all that. He has forgotten the curious hurts and joys of humanity. He has forgotten the warmth of bodies locked in love, forgotten the painful beauty of children. He has forgotten the primal terror that hides int he heart of the lightning, of the thunder. He should not have forgotten the thunder.” For “Marvelman” was to Johnny Bates what “Kimota” was to Mickey Moran - the word that transformed him back and forth between his identities, causing him to suddenly change back into a small and terrified child, seemingly no longer dangerous (although this assumption on Marvelman’s part has already been undermined for the reader by the flash forward in “Yesterday’s Gambit”). 

Leach’s last involvement with Marvelman came in Warrior #7, published in November of 1982, eight months after the magazine’s debut. It appeared alongside installments of The Spiral Path, Shandor, Demon Stalker, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton, a Paul Neary strip called Madman that had debuted in Warrior #2, and the “Virtue Victorious” installment of V for Vendetta, in which Evey helps V bring down the pedophile Bishop of Westminster. Entitled “Secret Identity,” the strip served as a transitional beat between the Kid Marvelman story that had just resolved and the story of Evelyn Cream and Project Zarathustra, set up in the denouement of that story. It would also, idiosyncratically, be one of the major causes of Moore’s eventual departure from the strip just under two years later. 

Figure 655: The torment within Johnny Bates's mind. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Alan Davis and Garry Leach, from "Secret Identity," in Warrior #7, 1982)
The eight page strip jumps among settings, starting with Sir Dennis Archer shortly after briefing the sapphire-toothed Evelyn Cream on his mission. Archer reflects on the events of October 12th, 1963, when they blew up the Marvelman Family. The second page has Mike and Liz out on Dartmoor, getting ready to test Marvelman’s powers. Liz brings a stack of American superhero comics, reading off possible powers he could have. The third goes to Johnny Bates, now in the hospital, catatonic. The scene shifts to inside Bates’s mind, where Kid Marvelman berates him, calling him a “snot-nosed little pratt” and a “snotty little virgin.” Then it cuts back to Marvelman and Liz investigating his powers, trying to figure out exactly how they work and how, for instance, the impact of a massive boulder falling on him doesn’t drive his feet into the ground at all. Page five has Evelyn Cream, with caption boxes explaining how he has figured out that Marvelman must have been one of the reporters at Larksmere, that the transformation probably resulted in some sort of energy transfer, and that the terrorist with burns was probably closest when it happens, arriving at the hospital. This is followed by one more page of the Morans, with Marvelman having turned back into Mike and the two of them driving off. As they do, Liz tells Mike that “I’ve missed my last periods and I’m going to have a baby and it isn’t yours its Marvelman’s.” [continued]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Comics Reviews (February 25, 2015)

First off, the second part of the commentary track for The Rescue. Next up will be The Mind Robber, although whether that starts the first or second week of March is still unclear - trying to schedule it with Jack. Watch this space. Part one is still available here. 

Also, Logopolis book update, I just ordered my proof copy, so expect an announcement early next week. Tentatively, let's say it'll be out on Tuesday the 3rd. Details will be up here, but broadly, the plan is a limited release exclusively through this site and my print on demand publisher, at least for the first few months, with a possible broad release/ebook version to follow. 

Finally, comics.

Chew #46

This just left me totally cold for some reason. Whatever is meant to be interesting about this latest plot arc doesn't really present itself yet, with the death of Poyo yet to actually have any interesting consequences, and the vague sense of "well, I've bought forty-six issues, I may as well follow it til the end" back in force here. 

New Avengers #30

The sense that Jonathan Hickman is just Grant Morrison without a sense of humor is strong in this book. Can't say I'm wild about destroying the entire Captain Britain mythology casually and without a "Last Days of the Captain Britain Corps" mini or anything. Actually, I can't say I'm wild about anything here. It feels like Hickman doesn't trust his own ideas enough to carry a story, and is just going all out in explaining his wild multiversal philosophy. Comparisons to Multiversity do Hickman no favors, and I don't even like Multiversity that much.

Amazing Spider-Man #15

I can't honestly say I care much about the status quo coming out of Spider-Verse, not least because the status quo coming out of any Marvel event right now is a bit of an odd thing what with time running out and everything ending. Much of this served as a resolution of the Superior Spider-Man plot, which I skipped, so that didn't really work for me either. I'd say I'm really considering dropping this, but my position on Marvel right now is that it's kind of silly to make any major changes to my pulls given that I'll be redoing them all in the wake of Secret Wars anyway. 

Thor Annual #1

A triptych of small tales, all on the sweet/funny end of the scale. Harmless, and no bad tales, but a classically inessential annual at $4.99.

All-New X-Men #38

I read this and the preceding installment of Black Vortex this week, having accidentally left Star-Lord on the shelf last week. The pace of the start of the crossover has thoroughly dissipated, and we're now left in decompressed wheel-spinning of the sort that blights crossovers reliably. The "evil versions" of characters are as dull as I feared, and I'm not a fan of Sorrentino's art, which is, for me, a textbook case of exchanging clarity of storytelling for prettiness. But at least Bendis is at home with decompressed middle chapters, they being essentially his default form, so this rolls along pleasantly.

Gotham Academy #5

My failure to remember who anyone is made this one much more like the frustrating issues 2-3 as opposed to the unexpectedly fun #4. I don't think this is a bad book at all - the plot beats are all really nice, in fact. DC's refusal to do recap/cast pages is a real thorn in the book's side, though, and I really wish I were trade-waiting, frankly. #6 should be the last before Convergence, and I may well switch to the trade after it, probably after sitting down with the first six and reading them back to back in the hopes that I remember who the hell anyone is.

Daredevil #13

While I continue to feel like Waid has used his best ideas on Daredevil, his second best are still quite fun. I really like Kirsten being kidnapped on her own terms, by her own arch-nemesis. I hope the sense of tragic downfall is one Waid ultimately avoids, but I think he will, as it really doesn't fit what else he's been doing on the book.

Darth Vader #2

It speaks to how poor a week this is that this, which I wasn't overly enamored with as a comic, lands so high on the list. There's a lot here that's good. I like the decision to use this book as a sort of "mission by mission" take on Vader, but the frame is lacking for me, and I found myself not entirely sure what's going on or what it had to do with issue #1 for most of this. I couldn't tell what was happening at several major plot beats, and even a reread is not entirely clarifying. I like the broad strokes, but it felt like I'd missed at least one issue, if not more, which is an odd place to be on a second issue. Not sure what's going on here, as Gillen is usually super-good about pacing and structure.

Spider-Gwen #1

I'm so thoroughly glad this book exists. In the general aesthetic of pop comics going on right now (books like Batgirl, WicDiv, and Ms. Marvel), this has been one of the most satisfying success stories, not least because of the sort of organic nature of its success - a one-off for a crossover makes good as people fall in love with the character. Great style, fun book, and a very sly cliffhanger. Check this out. 

The Wicked & The Divine #8

But this is still my favorite of the week. Gillen and McKelvie in arch-formalist mode, enjoying the ways in which a middle installment of a storyline allows them to wander seemingly far from any notion of "plot" or "arc." Which means nobody can touch them; this is the sort of thing both of them are best at. Completely and utterly not where to jump on with WicDiv, but the book is firmly at the point where it can drop a "for the fans" issue and move on. As a fan, I'm enormously appreciative. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.03: Lord Snow

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones is generously funded by my backers at Patreon. If you enjoy it, please consider, for just $1 a week, supporting both this project and my compulsive "having a roof over my head" habit.

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: Robert Baratheon. Joffrey Baratheon
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen, Viserys Targaryen
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Peter Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Bran Stark, Robb Stark
And the Lion of the Wall, Tyrion Lannister. 

The episode is in fourteen parts. The first runs fourteen minutes and is in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is nine minutes long; the first shot is the Stark bannermen riding through the gates. The second is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Varys saying they serve at Lord Stark’s pleasure to Cersei treating Joffrey’s wounds. The last is five minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Cersei and Joffrey talking about the Starks to the Starks. 

The second part runs three minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is by family, from Ned and Arya to Bran. The cliffhanger is resolved sixteen minutes in, when Bran appears for the first time. 

The third runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family, from Robb and Bran to Catelyn. 

The fourth runs one minute and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Littlefinger talking about Tyrion to Tyrion. 

The fifth runs two minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by dialogue, from Jeor Mormont talking about the Starks to Ned. 

The sixth runs two minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, Ned Stark to Jon Snow.

The seventh runs eight minutes and in four sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is one minute long; the transition is by dialogue and by family, from Tyrion informing Jon Snow that Bran has woken up to Ned and Catelyn in Littlefinger’s brothel. The second is one minute long; the transition is by dialogue, from Littlefinger and the Starks talking about the assassin’s attempt on Bran’s life to Jaime and Cersei talking about theirs. The third is two minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Jaime saying he’ll kill Ned Stark if need be to Ned Stark. The last is five minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Ned talking about Robert to Robert. At the episode’s halfway point, Ned and Catelyn are saying goodbye for the last time in their lives. 

The eighth part runs three minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by dialogue, with Jaime talking about killing Aerys Targaryen to Daenerys Targaryen. 

The ninth run eight minutes and is in two sections; it is set on the Wall. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow. The other is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Benjen Stark walking away from Jon Snow to Tyrion and Yoren drinking. One minute into it, Benjen Stark arrives. 

The tenth part runs three minutes and is in two sections; it is set in the Dothraki Sea. The first section is one minute long; the transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion drinking to Daenerys having her hair braided. The other is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys reacting to the news of her pregnancy to Jorah admiring a Dothraki sword. 

The eleventh part is two minutes long, and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue and family, with Jorah talking about Daenerys and his father to Jon Snow and, shortly thereafter, Jeor Mormont and Aemon Targaryen. 

The twelfth runs one minute and is set in the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by family, from Aemon Targaryen to Daenerys. 

The thirteenth runs one minute long and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow.

The fourteenth runs three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark. The final shot is Ned flinching as he imagines Arya being pierced by a sword and gasping “Mornington Crescent” as she dies. 

Analysis

It is not a neat and tidy game, and certainly not a short one; indeed, its length is infamous. Central to both of these facts is the way in which the overwhelming preponderance of moves have the result of expanding the board. The fractal dualism of Ice and Fire is one strategy for navigating this, but another is simply travel, and it is worth focusing on the locations upon the board. After the first episode the convention of captions identifying the locations is abandoned, but it must be pointed out that the first cut to Daenerys is the last time that there has been a cut to a scene featuring no characters the audience has seen before. Which is to say, from the start the audience has been invited to look at the show in terms of geography, as something taking place on a board. 

Indeed, the show has been active in teaching the audience about the geography of the world by carefully regulating the rate at which new concepts are introduced. The second episode features one change to the locations in the opening credits, as Daenerys, Viserys, and Jorah decamp from Pentos towards Vaes Dothrak. Now the series gives proper introductions to King’s Landing and the Wall, having gestured at their existence since the opening shot of “Winter is Coming.” Indeed, this is the major purpose of “Lord Snow,” which spends thirty minutes over five parts in King’s Landing and ten over five on the Wall, well over half the episode by both metrics. 

It does this with a methodical structure. The first seven sections (and roughly the first half of the episode) alternate between King’s Landing and the Wall, save for an initial transition to Winterfell in the second scene, the only time that location is used this episode, while the back half alternates between the Wall and Vaes Dothrak before returning to King’s Landing for the last scene so as to give the episode symmetry, allowing each of the two new locations space within the structure to establish themselves.

In reality each are slightly more reluctant. King’s Landing has much to introduce - Syrio, Barristan, Varys, Littlefinger, Renly, and Pycelle all make their first appearances here, with various degrees of detail. This time it is Littlefinger who get the most attention, which is sensible, given that it’s Littlefinger whose machinations will most immediately affect the progression of play. Indeed, he’s the only one to be credited as a series regular, although Varys will eventually become one. But nevertheless, the initial focus is on the basic fact that King’s Landing is a snakepit than on the considerable depth of that pit, a point emphasized by the decision to close the episode not with Arya and Syrio, but with Ned reacting to Arya and Syrio, thus in effect returning to the point of the initial scene: that the Starks have arrived in a dangerous place. (This has the side effect of softening a major moment for Arya by making her first contact with Braavos into a scene that ends with Ned, who is not even present in the equivalent book scene.) 

This is not the only set of terms King’s Landing is introduced in, however, as the show adds several sequences not set around the Starks that are outside what the books could have depicted. Many exist to reiterate basic characterization for characters, such as to establish Joffrey’s repulsive nature or to remind viewers of Cersei and Jaime’s incest. One, however, stands out - a scene in which Robert, Barristan, and Jaime reminisce about their first kills, which allows for an extensive meditation on significant portions of Westerosi history that the books were able to cover via internal monologue, but also serves as a portrait of three subtly different ways in which people relate to their own status as weapons, a theme that is further developed in Arya’s plot. 

Also interesting is the fact of Catelyn’s presence in King’s Landing, which serves to introduce the location, in effect, through an additional familiar character who is put there for one episode only. The same thing occurs at the Wall with Tyrion’s presence. In the book these two facts are straightforward: they allow both locations to be introduced through an additional viewpoint character. Indeed, in the books Catelyn is the first viewpoint character to have a chapter set in King’s Landing. Their purposes in being briefly located in these parts of the board are admittedly different - for Catelyn the effect is to give her and Ned another episode of development as a couple before they are permanently parted, whereas for Tyrion the excursion to the Wall serves the long game, as it will ultimately make him, significantly, the first character to traverse the board from ice to fire.

In this regard, his role is to establish two things about the Wall. First, he is there to comment on its sorry state in a way that Jon cannot. Even though he is, as the audience knows, wrong to scoff at the White Walkers, he also lets the show establish what a reasonable person thinks of the Wall, which is a distinct viewpoint from what Jon, with his frustrated anger at being abandoned to the Wall. Second, he is there to teach Jon an important lesson - a role that is played up in the series by having him be the one to tell Jon to check his privilege instead of Donal Noye. The straightforwardness of Jon’s heroic arc requires wise mentors early on, and the contrivance to have Tyrion be one of them gives Jon a needed tether to the rest of the board. 

Tyrion’s presence, in the books, also allows for characterization of the Wall’s leadership, which would not have fit in around Jon Snow when he’s still a new recruit. It still serves much the same purpose here, as, while the show is perfectly willing to insert scenes that do not feature any characters who were viewpoint characters in the novels, a scene with no regulars remains outside of its own narrative rules, which means that characters like Commander Mormont, Benjen Stark, and Yorren would not be possible to flesh out to any degree. 

And so, at last, the board is essentially set. There are no more basic principles or fundamental laws to introduce. And it is, at last, time for the first major move. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Waffling (February 21, 2015)

First off, because both of these posted at odd times, here's a link to the commentary on Episode 1 of The Rescue. Thanks again to Jack Graham for co-commenting. We'll be back Wednesday with Episode 2. And here's this week's Last War in Albion, which has the start of a couple entries' worth of coverage of Marvelman/Miracleman before we put that back on the shelf for a bit and wait to catch up to the Eclipse era.

Since we did it last week for Eruditorum, let's do it for Last War in Albion, because I'm genuinely curious. What are your favorite/least favorite bits of that so far?

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Drawling Twang in a Forbidden Tongue (The Last War in Albion Part 84: Night Raven, Marvelman)

This is the twelfth of fifteen parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Nine, focusing on Alan Moore's work on V for Vendetta for Warrior (in effect, Books One and Two of the DC Comics collection). An omnibus of all fifteen parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in a collected edition, along with the eventual completion of the story. UK-based readers can buy it here.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionOne of the most immediate antecedents of V for Vendetta was Night Raven, a noir strip from Dez Skinn's Hulk Comics originally created by Steve Parkhouse and David Lloyd, which later became a series of text features in Marvel Super-Heroes and The Daredevils written by Alan Moore, in which the character is infected with a virus created by his nemesis, Yi Yang, which has the effect of both rendering him immortal and causing him constant and excruciating pain.

"It was a voice of thunder that answered his question - a drawling twang in a forbidden tongue we'd only ever heard in banned movie reels." - Grant Morrison, Multiversity: Mastermen

Figure 644: Night Raven causes the antagonists to kill their
own man by putting a Night Raven mask on one of them.
 (Written by Steve Parkhouse, art by David Lloyd, from
Hulk Comic #1, 1979)
Over the course of Moore’s stories, Night Raven suffers from the disease until he finally obtains a cure, at which point he realizes that Yi Yang had only done all of this to give herself an enemy. (“How does an immortal kill herself,” he has Night Raven ponder in the story where he’s finally cured. “She sets about creating a weapon, perhaps unconsciously, responding to that barely audible voice inside her that pleads for extinction. She creates a weapon that might just be able to kill her.”) This also let Moore gradually move the setting up to the present day, which has obvious appeal to anyone seeking to use the character in future stories since it enables teaming him up with other characters in the Marvel stable. Having accomplished this, however, and with Moore backing away from Marvel UK work due to his dissatisfaction with Bernie Jaye’s dismissal, Moore, again characteristically, handed the text pieces over to Jamie Delano, giving him his first professional credit. 

Figure 645: V causes the antagonists to kill their own man
by putting a Guy Fawkes mask on one of them. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd, from "The Vacation," in
Warrior #18, 1984)
V for Vendetta, however, fell a long way from Night Raven, although certainly similarities were maintained, most obviously the faceless and implacable nature of the lead characters, although V eventually did get the origin story that Night Raven lacked. The most obvious of these is the change in setting from the 1930s to the present day - a change prompted by Lloyd’s request to not have to keep doing a bunch of historical reference. Moore proceeded to mull over the nature of the 30s noir setting, and concluded that the appeal “was rooted in the exotic and glamorous locations that the stories were set in…, seedy waterfront bars, plush penthouses dripping with girls, stuff like that. All the magic of a vanished age.” And, further, that “it might be possible to get the same effect by placing the story in the near future as opposed to the near past,” thus giving the story its futuristic setting, which Moore then combined with an abandoned idea he’d submitted to Starblazer publisher D.C. Thomson about a white-faced terrorist called the Doll fighting a near-future totalitarian dictatorship, which set Moore and Lloyd upon the path that would eventually lead to Moore’s aforementioned list of would-be influences and Lloyd’s Guy Fawkes idea.

This accounts for almost all of the conceptual genesis of V for Vendetta, save for one detail, namely how it is that Moore came to be the writer on it. The most obvious person to pair with Lloyd on a Night Raven clone, after all, would have been Steve Parkhouse, although Parkhouse was already employed writing and drawing The Spiral Path for Warrior. The explanation for this is relatively simple, however: David Lloyd wanted Moore. They had already worked together on some of Moore’s Doctor Who Weekly strips, and Lloyd clearly believed in Moore’s talent, having opted to interview him for the Society of Script Illustrators newsletter, despite his extreme greenness at the time. Skinn had no problem with Lloyd’s suggested writer, presumably in part because Skinn was already entertaining a pitch from Moore for the strip that Skinn intended to be the centerpiece of his new magazine, a revival of Mick Anglo’s 1950s character of Marvelman.

Where Moore got the V for Vendetta job due to Lloyd’s intercession, Marvelman he landed more or less entirely on the strength of his idea for it - an idea that, to be fair, he’d been working on and refining for sixteen years at that point. As Moore tells it, he was on holiday at the Seashore Caravan Camp in Yarmouth at the age of twelve and relishing the fact that the coastal regions of the UK had slightly different comics distribution than what was available in Northampton, and that there were thus a wealth of new comics to read. And on his 1966 holiday, this included both a Young Marvelman annual and The Mad Reader. The latter of these contained Kurtzman and Wood’s iconic “Superduperman." The former contained a selection of Mick Anglo’s Marvelman stories, published between 1954 and 1963.

Figure 646: Billy Batson and the mysterious man
journey down into a magical subway. (Written by Bill
Parker, art by C.C. Beck, from Whiz Comics #2, 1940)
The origin of Marvelman is legendarily complex. The story begins in the United States in 1940 with the publication of Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics #2 (which, unusually, was actually the first issue of the magazine, although it also had two issue threes, so in a sense it all worked out in the end), featuring the debut of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was fairly straightforwardly an attempt to capitalize on the success of DC’s Superman, to the point of having a cover in which the character hurls a car, much like Superman does on the cover of Action Comics #1. The story within, however, had a markedly different tone. It opens with a young boy trying to sell a newspaper to a mysterious figure in a trenchcoat and fedora, who asks him “Why aren’t you home in bed, son?” The boy explains that he’s homeless and sleeps in the subway, at which point the man exclaims, “Follow me!” The boy for some reason does, at which point “a strange subway car, with headlights gleaming like a dragon’s eyes, roars into the station and stops. No one is driving it!” The man reassures the boy, telling him that “everything has been arranged,” and so the boy gets on the train, which takes them to “a platform resembling the mouth of a weird, subterranean cavern.” At this point, the mysterious man vanishes from the narrative entirely, and the boy walks past statues representing the seven deadly enemies of man (in fact the seven sins) and meets “an old, old man, sitting on a marble throne.” He introduces himself as Shazam (and a bolt of lightning strikes as he does), explaining that this is an acronym for Solomon Hercules Atlas Zeus Achilles Mercury. Shazam has apparently been using (respectively) the wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage, and speed of these gods “to battle the forces of evil which every day threaten to extinguish man from the face of the Earth,” but who has grown too old to continue, and so who has decided that the boy, Billy Batson, will now have to fight evil in his place by speaking his name and transforming into Captain Marvel.  At this point Shazam is crushed by a massive block of granite, and Batson returns to the world aboveground, where he foils the evil plan of Doctor Sivana, who wants to destroy all radio stations. 

The character was a breakout success, at one point becoming the most popular superhero in the United States, outselling even Superman. This led DC to sue Fawcett on the grounds that Captain Marvel was simply a ripoff of Superman, a case that wound its way through the courts for twelve years until 1953, at which point Fawcett, bled dry by legal fees and the post-War decline of superhero comics, opted to settle the case and cease publishing Captain Marvel, at which point DC licensed and eventually bought the character. (This lawsuit, it should be reiterated, was what Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” was parodying.) The shutdown of Captain Marvel in 1953, however, gave the British comics publisher L. Miller & Son, who had bought the rights to publish black and white reprints of Captain Marvel in the UK, a significant problem, in that their most popular comic had abruptly ceased to exist.

Figuer 647: Marvelman in action in his debut.
(By Mick Anglo, from "Marveman and the
Atomic Bomber," in Marvelman #25, 1954)
To deal with this, L. Miller & Son paid one of their writer-artists, Mick Anglo, to create a replacement character. Anglo stuck pretty closely to the original material. Instead of Billy Batson there was Micky Moran. Instead of a wizard there was an atomic scientist. And instead of saying “Shazam” the character’s magic word was “Kimota,” which was of course “atomic” backwards. Other than that, however, the character was a near-exact lift of Captain Marvel, and when he made his debut in the newly retitled Marvelman #25, he didn’t even get an origin story beyond a caption box explaining that “A recluse Astro-Scientist discovers the key word to the Universe, one that can only be given to a Boy who is completely honest, studious, and of such integrity that he would only use it for the powers of good. He finds such a Boy in MICKY MORAN, a Newspaper Copy Boy, and treats him in a special machine which enables him to use the secret. Just before the Scientist dies he tells Micky the Key Word which is KIMOTA. MICKY MORAN remains as he ways, but when he says the Key Word KIMOTA he becomes MARVELMAN, a Man of such strength and powers that he is Invincible and Indestructible.”

It would be a gratuitous exaggeration to suggest that Marvelman was particularly good. Far from it - the strip never really developed beyond its origins as a Captain Marvel knockoff. Nevertheless, it was the one British-created superhero of any significance, and retained a certain nostalgic cachet as a result. And so when Moore happened upon a collection of Young Marvelman stories (Marvelman, like Captain Marvel, had a pair of child sidekicks/spinoffs) alongside “Superduperman,” he had an idea. He was aware that Marvelman had long since gone out of print, and found himself imagining what the character might be up to these days. This intersected with the idea of a superhero parody, and he found himself musing on the idea of a version of Marvelman who had forgotten his magic word.

This, in turn, intersected with Skinn’s developing plans for Warrior. He viewed his quiet revival of Captain Britain in Hulk Comic as one of its biggest successes, and furthermore wanted to make sure he had a superhero comic in the mix. As he put it, “I wanted one of the six strips to reflect Marvel, to gain a slice of their audience, with something uniquely British.” Given that, Marvelman was really the only character available. Skinn first offered the strip to Steve Parkhouse, and then, when he wasn’t interested, to Steve Moore, who also wasn’t interested, but who noted that he had a friend who would be hugely interested - Moore having just mentioned it in his Society of Strip Illustrators interview with Lloyd as a dream project. Skinn, however, was understandably cautious about giving what he intended to be one of the marquee strips in his magazine to an untested writer, and so Moore wrote up a pitch outlining his ideas for the character. 

Moore’s pitch begins with several paragraphs outlining his general philosophical take on the character and on how he could best “bring what was basically a silly-arsed strip into line with the Nineteen-Eighties.” This required grappling with the nostalgia involved in reviving the character. As Moore observed, “nostalgia, if handled wrong, can prove to be nothing better than sloppy and mawkish crap. In my opinion, the central appeal of nostalgia is that all this stuff in the past has gone. It’s finished. We’ll never see it again… and this is where the incredible poignance of nostalgia really comes from.” Moore’s solution was to juxtapose the nostalgia for Marvelman with the “cruel and cynical Eighties,” arguing that “the resultant tension will hopefully provide a real charge and poignance.” Further, Moore was eager to make the strip work as good science fiction, which, in his view, meant that the strip’s fantastic premise “should stem from one divergence from reality,” which, he explained, would be “the crashing of an alien spacecraft in 1948.” 

At this point, Moore begins a lengthy explanation of his revamped mythology for the strip. At the heart of it was the character of Emil Gargunza, Anglo’s transparent substitute for Doctor Sivana. In Moore’s conception, Gargunza was a Brazillian scientist who made his name with research into eugenics before contracting for the Third Reich and subsequently defecting to the UK at the end of the war. This led to him being put in charge of investigating the 1948 spaceship crash, in which he discovered alien bodies that appeared to be two bodies fused together. Gargunza figures out that these aliens have the ability to switch between two bodies, and thus to transform into beings of tremendous power, and commences figuring out how to do this with human bodies so as to create superheroes. He does so with three orphans associated with the Royal Air Force (his employer), keeping them under strict observation and testing their abilities by feeding them false memories of being silly cartoonish superheroes. In 1961, he terminates the experiment, detonating a nuclear weapon in their immediate proximity to kill them. 

Figure 648: Marvelman reborn. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Gary Leach, from
"A Dream of Flying" in Warrior #1, 1982)
Instead, however, his oldest subject, Mickey Moran, survives in his human form, having forgotten how to transform into a superhero. He grows up, gets married, gets a job, and at this point Moore proposes to pick up his story in an episode entitled “A Dream of Flying.” Moore outlines a plot that begins with Moran having a joyful dream of flying that turns ugly as he’s engulfed in some sort of fireball. Moran will awaken and head to work as a freelance journalist, covering the opening of a nuclear power station, but haunted by the dream. Terrorists will attack the power plant, attempting to steal plutonium so they can build their own hydrogen bomb. Moran, held hostage, sees the word “ATOMIC” reflected in a door, and reads it backwards, out loud, suddenly transforming into Marvelman. The terrorist next to him simply drops dead, burnt to death in the force of Marvelman’s transformation. Seven feet tall and blue, he trivially cleans up the terrorists and flies away, joyful at being a superhero again. [continued]